Bacteriophages: Biology, Technology, Therapy

bacteriophages book

David R Harper, Stephen T Abedon, Benjamin H Burrowes and Malcolm L McConville (Eds)
Springer Reference, £499

Bacteriophages, or simply ‘phages’, are a fascinating yet underappreciated life form. An umbrella term for all viruses that infect and kill prokaryotes, there are thought to be at least ten times as many phage particles as bacteria and archaea on the planet, making them by far the most abundant and diverse form of life to be found on Earth.

Constantly infecting, manipulating and killing prokaryotic cells in every environment, these viruses help control bacterial populations, drive genetic diversity and evolution, and influence biogeochemical cycles on a global scale. They have played a key role in most of the great advances in molecular biology since the 1950s, including the discovery of CRISPR, which is of course a prokaryotic defence system against phages.

Discovered in the early 20th century by the eccentric self-taught microbiologist Felix d’Herelle, phages’ bacteria-killing properties found use in the fight against infectious disease in the 1920s and 30s. Host-specific phages were used to treat a range of infectious diseases from plague to dysentery to gangrene years long before penicillin was widely available.

Because of the challenges of working with viruses, the concept was largely abandoned by western medicine as more convenient and mass-producible antibiotics came onto the market. That is, except for a few pockets of the former Soviet Union – namely Tbilisi in Georgia, where phage therapy has been practiced continuously since the 1930s. Now, hundreds of health tourists make the difficult trip here every year in the hope that Georgia’s phage experts can kill off their chronic or drug-resistant infections.

With the antimicrobial crisis becoming ever more acute, phage therapy is once again being explored in the US and Europe as a way to treat infections where conventional treatments have failed. Efforts to modernise and standardise this forgotten treatment are suddenly attracting huge interest and funding. Bacteriophages: Biology, Technology, Therapy is therefore published at an exciting time for phage research.

This reference guide to bacteriophages is arguably even more broad than its subtitle suggests. At well over 1000 pages the book not only covers biology and the technological and medical applications of phages, but also touches on the fascinating history of phage science, the use of phages in environmental and agricultural contexts, and the relatively young field of phage ecology.

The early sections familiarise readers with the mechanisms of phage infection as well as their structures, strategies and diversity. As the book progresses sections look at specific techniques for working with phage and both current and potential applications of phage – including industrial, veterinary and medical and in molecular biology and nanotechnology.

The book contains chapters from well-known figures in the field, from the historian William Summers, known for documenting the early years of phages science and the fascinating career of Felix d’Herelle, to Nina Chanishvili and Zemphira Alavidze from the Georgian phage therapy institutes that hold banks of useful phages going back decades.

Those who study phages know their time in the spotlight is well overdue. For those who don’t, this book is a good place to start. Several clinical trials of a modernised version of phage therapy are set to conclude this year, and after almost a century of false starts phage therapy could soon become a mainstream treatment. Outside of the medical sphere, microbiologists are only just starting to understand the impact of these fundamental, fascinating and potentially life-saving viruses on the evolution and ecology of life on this planet.

Tom Ireland MRSB